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The middle class turns out the lights in France

The crisis experienced by once-popular clothing brands such as Kookaï, Naf Naf, Pimkie and Camaïeu is partly due to Covid and inflation, but it also reflects deeper social changes

Francia
A Naf Naf store in Paris, in an image from 2020.Edward Berthelot (GETTY IMAGES)
Marc Bassets

There are names, brands and places that shine and fascinate us until, without knowing how or why, one day they begin to look gray, and the next day no one remembers them anymore. The activist and writer Cory Doctorow coined the word “enshittification.” With this crude expression, Doctorow was alluding to the slow decline of digital platforms like Facebook. He could just as well be talking about the crisis of the French clothing chains that flourished in the 1980s and 90s, and which have lost their luster over time.

Some were the coolest. Brand names such as Naf-Naf, Kookaï, Camaïeu, Pimkie and others were part of the street landscape in cities large and small, as well as in shopping centers on the outskirts.

The years went by, and competition from cheaper brands and chains such as Spain’s Zara, changes in consumer habits and, finally, the Covid pandemic and the inflationary spiral, represented a death sentence. Some were dragged into bankruptcy. Others have had to close dozens of stores. But there is also a fundamental social change underlying the crisis of the French chains that clothed the middle classes in the final stage of the golden era of the middle class in the West.

In 2023, nearly 4,000 people lost their jobs in the textile sector, according to the latest report from the Alliance du Commerce, a professional industry organization in France. In four years, almost one in five customers has defected.

Kookaïette… The new breed of chic and penniless young women,” said a television report from the late 1980s about what was then the Kookaï phenomenon. The kookaïettes were the girls who dressed in Kookaï clothes. The video, taken from the extensive archive of the National Audiovisual Institute, seems from the perspective of 2024 to be a nostalgic lament for a world that will no longer return. A kookaïette declares in the report: “The 40-year-old woman who needs a sweater to wear under a jacket, even a Chanel or Saint Laurent jacket, will come here to find it, just like the 16-year-old girl who is looking for a t-shirt or sweater to go out at night.”

Generational relief

Those kookaïettes today are over 50 and their daughters and sons no longer dress in Kookaï, which last autumn was acquired by the French group Antonelle-Un jour ailleurs. Nor do they shop at Camaïeu, in judicial liquidation since last September. Instead they buy their clothes online, or second-hand, in multinationals such as Primark, H&M or Zara, or at cheap chains such as Action or Zeeman.

The prêt-à-porter industry featuring medium prices for the middle class has had a hard time dealing with the new times. In reality, the crisis reflects a broader phenomenon that feeds the recurring French neurosis about eternal decline.

This is what Jérôme Fourquet and Jean-Laurent Cassely call, in the essay La France sous nos yeux (France under our eyes), “the end of the common home.” That is to say, the erosion and disintegration of the French middle class. Some fall and others rise, and what was a more or less compact block is fragmenting into disparate ways of life.

On the one hand, there is an upper-middle class that opts for more expensive and distinctive products (be it the gourmet hamburger or the electric SUV). On the other, there is a lower-middle class that is losing its footing and consuming cheaper products (be it McDonald’s and kebab, or the ubiquitous Dacia Duster automobile). There are two versions of everything today: the premium and the discount. And in the middle, there is a growing void.

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